September 23, 1934
Louis Bras and his Hot Six Combo were raising the roof on the bandstand of the Honey Pot, a ’tonk at the River end of St. Peter Street. Inside, the crowd was dancing and swaying to the music as Louis rattled the rafters with his cornet and came up for air now and then to sing the lyrics to “It Don’t Mean A Thing” in his gravel voice.
In a corner, with his back to the wall, Wesley Farrell sat drinking beer out of a tall pilsner glass, unconsciously nodding his head in time to the music as his eyes moved restlessly over the crowd. He wasn’t watching for anybody in particular, but he’d learned early that danger had a way of blind-siding you when you made your living in the underworld.
The Great Experiment, as the Volstead Act was sometimes known, was nearly over. For the first time since 1919, beer could be legally produced and sold. After fifteen years of enforced sobriety, it was possible to understand the boisterousness of the Honey Pot and the customers’ half-crazed gaiety. Farrell wasn’t by nature a sociable man, but he understood the occasional urge in others to cut loose a little.
For Farrell, Repeal wasn’t particularly good news. He’d made a fair living importing illegal liquor past Coast Guard blockades and state and Federal Prohibition Agents. They all suspected him of rum-running and worse, but he had always eluded them. Now that racket was finished, and Farrell knew it was time to cut his losses and move on.
His eye lit upon a tall, well-built man in dress blues and a white peaked cap. Farrell saw from the little shield and two-and- a-half gold stripes on his sleeves that he was a Coast Guard lieutenant commander. He was a confident-looking man of perhaps thirty-five, with ruddy skin, dark red hair, and green eyes that inspected and evaluated everything around him. He seemed to be looking for somebody. He gave a word to the barkeep, and accepted a glass of beer.
Louis Bras had shifted into the lyrics for “Ja-Da” when the cork popped out of Hell. A huge man with a bulldog face pushed through the crowd and jostled a longshoreman, spilling beer down his shirt. In reflex, the longshoreman smashed bulldog in the jaw with his empty mug. The big man absorbed the blow, grabbed the longshoreman, lifted him overhead, and threw him across the room. The smaller man landed in the midst of a table surrounded by five dock workers, sending beer and food flying everywhere. The five bruisers rose as one, charging across the room at the big man, and the room erupted into a melee that swept up all and sundry. Louis continued to sing the bawdy lyrics as if the brawl was just another part of his act.
The corners of Farrell’s mouth turned down in disgust. He sat where he was, hoping the fight would bypass him, but as he sipped his beer, a merchant marine officer crashed into his table. Farrell jumped up, and as he did so, the seaman turned on him, fists flailing.
Farrell gave into an instant of bitterness as he blocked the man’s clumsy punch, drove an uppercut into his chin, then followed with a left-right to his gut. The seaman fell into a puddle at Farrell’s feet.
He was gradually pushed further into the corner as more men crowded into his space. Farrell shoved men who bumped into him back into the chaos, occasionally clipping a jaw or temple with short, hard jabs when necessary. He fought smart, avoiding the main conflict, but the room had become a seething mass of kicking, biting, gouging, slugging men and shrieking women. It swelled like a cancerous mass in his direction.
Suddenly he was parrying the blows of three men, and was about to go down when the Coast Guard officer got thrown into the corner with him. By some unspoken understanding, they began fighting together, guarding each other’s blind spots, using teamwork to get them out of the corner. Slowly, painfully, they worked their way toward the entrance and through it to the street.
As they stood on the sidewalk, panting and checking themselves for bleeding wounds, they finally acknowledged each other. “Nice work in there,” Farrell said. “You must’ve been in something like that before.”
The red-headed sailor grinned wryly. “Only six or seven times.
You didn’t do so badly, yourself.”
Before Farrell could reply, the wail of sirens could be heard in the distance. “Uh-oh,” he said. “We better make tracks.”
“I’m with you, brother. I got a car over here.” The sailor sprinted toward an old green Marmon roadster. Farrell followed directly behind and stepped over into the shotgun seat. Within seconds, the car sped from the Honey Pot. As they turned the corner, a police cruiser passed them, the siren screaming like a banshee. Only a heartbeat behind, two more followed it its wake.
The sailor grinned without taking his eyes from the road. “You must be Irish to have that kind of luck.”
Farrell cut his eyes at the man. “Part Irish, anyway. The name’s Farrell, Wesley Farrell.”
It was the sailor’s turn to cut his eyes at his passenger. “I’m Commander George Schofield. I know your name. You’ve made a nice living out of running illegal booze past my boats.” He turned his old roadster down Canal Street, and slowed as they drove past the darkened department stores on the famous boulevard.
Farrell reached a hand over to shake Schofield’s and grinned. “If that were true, and I’m not saying it is, I wouldn’t be in the business anymore. They repealed the Volstead Act, haven’t you heard?”
“Full repeal isn’t for another three months yet, Farrell. And until it is, I’m supposed to stop any smuggling I see and arrest those responsible.”
“If you’re such a Boy Scout, how come you were hanging around that crummy dive? Half the people in there made their living through bootleg whiskey for the past fifteen years. Bad company for a guy in your line.”
“I was supposed to meet somebody in there,” Schofield said, then he shut his mouth quickly.
Farrell registered his sudden reticence, and nodded as a flash of insight came. “I get it. Not very bright, though—agreeing to meet a stool pigeon in a place like that—you stuck out in that uniform like a sore thumb. You’re probably lucky he didn’t meet you.”
“What?” Schofield sounded confused.
“Use your head, sailor man. If you wanted to get your throat cut, you couldn’t find a better place than the Honey Pot. My guess is he was setting you up.”
Schofield jerked his head at Farrell, and his eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe that. This man has sent me good information on incoming liquor shipments several times. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have…” His face looked suddenly pale. “I guess I’m nuts to tell you this, but I think somebody’s leaking our patrol movements to a gang. They’ve been slipping by my boats for a long time—how long I don’t know. What I do know is that too much gets past us.”
Farrell fingered his chin as he absorbed this unexpected confidence. “Well, it doesn’t surprise me. When Sonny Bastrop was governor he drank Canadian Club on the lawn of the governor’s mansion in plain sight. I know, because I delivered it myself. And I know of a half-dozen crooked state prohibition agents who’ve gotten rich tipping off one booze operation or another before the Feds closed in.” He paused to get out his cigarette case. He offered one to the Coast Guardsman who took it and placed it between his lips. Farrell took one for himself, lit both cigarettes, then blew out a big cloud of smoke that disappeared behind them in the slipstream of the automobile.
“It isn’t funny, Farrell. A hell of a lot of people have gotten killed over smuggled booze.”
“I guess it isn’t. Only ironic.” Farrell paused and inhaled more smoke. “Is the turncoat one of your boys or a Treasury man?” Farrell knew the Coast Guard was an arm of the Treasury Department, so it could as easily have been a Prohibition agent as a Coast Guardsman.
“I don’t know. We coordinate our movements and share intelligence reports with Treasury. Tonight I’d hoped to find out which.” Schofield paused and looked over at Farrell. “You’re pretty slick, Farrell. How do I know you’re not mixed up in this?”
Farrell shrugged. “You don’t, but for the record, I never needed cops on my payroll. I don’t trust them. If one of them would sell you out, they’d sell me out just as quick. But you still haven’t explained who you were looking for in the Honey Pot.”
Schofield grinned. “I guess there’s no harm in telling you now. I don’t know who the man is—I’ve only communicated with him through typewritten notes addressed to my home. I received one this afternoon telling me he’d discovered the name of the man who was being paid off and which of the big gangs he worked for. I was told to meet him at the Honey Pot at 10:00 tonight, and to wear my uniform.” He paused, fooling with the knot in his tie, then he said, “He’s been straight with me until now. I don’t think he was playing me for a sucker.”
“Well, maybe not, but you won’t find out tonight. I—” Farrell abruptly stopped talking as bright lights lit up the interior of the roadster. Farrell threw a look behind him, and saw headlights rushing toward them. “Schofield, step on it,” he yelled. He reached into his coat for his .38 and leveled it over the tonneau of the roadster. A shotgun roared and buckshot whistled and hissed around them. Farrell fired back, his second shot extinguishing a headlamp in the pursuing car. He grinned until he heard a rear tire on the Marmon blow with a loud bang. The Coast Guardsman fought the wheel as the car skidded across the road. It sloughed sideways, giving the pursuer the opportunity he needed to pull abreast on the driver’s side. As he did so, the shotgun cut loose with another load, and the Marmon fishtailed into the rear of a parked Chevrolet with a horrid shriek of tearing metal and breaking glass. Farrell hung on for dear life. As it shuddered to stop, he vaulted over the rear deck and took cover. Taking dead aim, he began shooting at the other car, a blue Pontiac sedan with Mississippi plates. He heard glass shatter as his bullets punched holes in the rear and side windows. Heedless of the withering fire, the invisible gunman fired again and again, driving Farrell face down in the street.
He heard the squeal of tires, and got to his feet in time to see the Pontiac tearing up Lakeward on Canal Boulevard. He threw two quick shots after it, his teeth bared in fury. As it disappeared, he stood there shaking with fright and rage until he remembered Schofield. He turned and ran back to the Marmon, jerking open the driver’s door. The commander’s body slid fluidly from the opening into Farrell’s arms. His eyes were open, but bloody froth bubbled at his lips. Farrell saw several reddening holes in his shirt.
Schofield was trying to talk, but he was choking on the blood in his punctured lungs, his eyes full of desperation.
Farrell looked down on him with a feeling of impotence. He hadn’t know the man long, but he had liked him. “Don’t try to talk. Help will be here soon.” Even as he said it, he knew it was a lie.
Schofield was no longer struggling, and his breath was ragged. At the last moment, the dying commander locked his eyes on Farrell’s, a glassful of blood overflowed his gasping mouth, and the last breath shuddered out of him.
Farrell eased him to the ground. He’d seen men die before, but this butchery made his stomach roil. As he knelt there, he heard sirens for the second time that night. There were cops who wanted to see him in Hell with his back broken, so he knew he couldn’t linger. He stood up, and began running. At Hennessey Street, he cut west, and kept up a ground-eating trot until he was five blocks away from the scene of the shooting. As he slackened his pace, he felt the vague nausea that always came at the end of a fight.
What he had just witnessed was a professional hit, as cowardly and sickening as murder got. As he’d guessed during the ride, somebody had set the sailor up. It was none of Farrell’s business, but he knew he would remember how George Schofield had died. He paused and turned his steps back. Downtown.
# # #
The blue Pontiac emerged onto City Park Avenue and headed back Uptown. In the front passenger seat, a big man with a deep scar running down through his right eyebrow propped a short-barreled Winchester shotgun against his leg. “You can slow down now.” His voice was thick and gutteral.
“Right.” The driver’s face was mostly obscured by the turned- up collar of his coat and the brim of the brown fedora he had pulled low down over his forehead. His rough hands moved gracefully over the wheel without a tremor. “You get him?”
“You can’t miss with one of these babies.”
“Good. He’d have figured things out before long.”
The big, scar-faced man reached into his jacket pocket and got out a package of Pall Mall cigarettes, tapped one out and grabbed it with his brutal lips. “Cigarette?” He offered the pack to the driver.
“Don’t use ’em. They’re no good for you.”
The other man popped a match to life with his thumbnail, then shoved the end of his cigarette into the flame. He exhaled a long plume of smoke, blowing out the match at the same time. “No good for you. That’s a riot.” He tossed the spent match out the window, then rested his right elbow on the window ledge. “The chances you been takin’ for the last coupla years.” He laughed again.
The driver shrugged. “Some risks are worth takin’. ‘Sides, I should go to the trouble to make all this jack, and then get sick and not get to enjoy it? A man’s got to take care of his body, Mercer, if he wants to live to a ripe old age.”
The big man sucked hard on his cigarette, and for a brief space of seconds the only sound was the sizzling of the flame eating into the tobacco. “Joe Earle, you still back there?”
“Yes, suh, Mist’ Mercer.” A negro boy, not older than eighteen, leaned out of the shadows in the back seat into the pale glow of the dashboard lights. There was sweat running down his face. “Didn’t reckon on nobody s-shootin’ back like that.” His voice was shaky.
“That’s why I give you the gun, knucklehead,” Mercer snarled. “Somebody shoots at you, you shoot their face off—that’s the way it works.” Mercer paused to inhale the last of his cigarette and then threw the butt out the window. “Did you even shoot back?”
“Uh, reckon not.” Joe Earle’s voice was low and shamed. “I— I didn’t get into this to do no killin’.”
“You been gettin’ good money for what you’re doin’, and if you have to let somebody take a shot at you once in a while, then that’s just the breaks. But if you’re just gonna hide in the corner when the fireworks start, I’ll leave you back workin’ on cars and find somebody who’ll shoot when I tell ‘em to.” Mercer’s contempt cut the air like a knife, and the young negro faded quickly back into the shadows. The .45 Mercer had given him lay on the seat beside him. He hadn’t even cocked it when Farrell had started shooting, and had simply lain on the floor until he felt the car moving again.
“The car’s a fuckin’ mess,” Mercer growled. “That guy with Schofield really tore it up. I wish I coulda put a round in his fuckin’ head, but he was too good. Joe Earle, after we drop him off,” he jerked his head at the driver, “I want you to take the car to Johnny and tell him to fix it up good, you hear me?”
“Yes, suh, Mist’ Mercer.” The youngster’s expression was shrouded in darkness as the car hurtled through the night. He bit his lip to keep from crying, and the taste of blood was bitter on his tongue.
March 12, 1939
The New Orleans police cruiser pulled to the side of Louisiana State Route 1 behind a pair of Chevrolets that bore the markings of the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff ’s department. Captain Frank Casey emerged from the right-hand passenger door as Negro Squad Detective Merlin Gautier climbed out from behind the wheel. The two of them stood there for a moment, staring at the deputies grouped around a blanket-covered form on the ground. There was a red smear at one end of the blanket, and a hand lay just outside the shroud.
Casey, a stocky man a shade under six feet with gray-shot red hair and mustache, looked coldly at the sight. Gautier stared too, unwilling to break the tense silence. A truck full of caged chickens went by them, leaving behind a clutch of feathers and the putrid smell of poultry floating in the morning breeze. As the truck passed, Casey strode toward the deputies. As he walked, he passed a campaign poster nailed to a nearby telegraph pole. On the poster was a photo of a serious-looking man in steel-rimmed glasses and a white cowboy Stetson. Beneath the picture were printed the words
“Tough on Crime—Paul Chauchaut—A Law-Enforcer For Governor of Louisiana.”
Casey had seen a hundred of them, and he paid no attention. When he reached the deputies, he took out his badge case and flipped it open.
“Frank Casey from the New Orleans Detective Bureau.” He jerked his chin over his shoulder. “This is Detective Gautier from the Negro Squad. Tell us what you got.”
A lanky man of mature years with an incongruously boyish face touched a finger to the brim of his cap. “Captain Luke Peters, sir. I’m the one who called. Deputies Gasso and Brisbois,” he gestured with a bony hand to the other men, “found the body about 5:00 A M. I got here soon afterward. When we found the police badge and identification card on his body, I called from that store down the road yonder. We don’t have much in the way of a crime lab, so we pretty much left things as we found ‘em.” Peters’s voice was a pleasant baritone that held a trace of East Texas.
Casey knelt beside the body, gently pulled back the bloody sheet and swallowed hard. What remained of a negro of about thirty seemed to stare up at him. The entire left side of the corpse’s face had been obliterated by a shotgun blast and the jaw hung bizarrely askew on the remaining hinge.
Gautier knelt beside his boss and began going through the dead man’s clothes. He found a .38 Colt Official Police revolver lying on the ground near the right hand. Gautier broke the cylinder open and saw that three of the six rounds had been fired. He put it into a valise he’d brought, then went through the inside pockets of the man’s jacket, discovering a wallet containing eleven dollars, a membership card for the Knights of Peter Claver, another for the Police Benevolent Association, and a photo of a pretty, dark skinned young woman and a grinning little boy. Gautier’s jaw tightened at that, then he brutally closed the wallet and shoved it into his valise. The other inside coat pocket yielded a black leather folder with a gold star-and-crescent New Orleans police badge and a laminated police identification card in the name of Thomas William Blanton. The dead man’s shirt pocket held a crumpled package of Old Gold cigarettes and a box of kitchen matches.
Casey had meanwhile been working on the trouser pockets, and had found a handful of coins and a nickel-silver Hamilton pocket watch on a silver fob. The fob was engraved with the initials TWB. He found the same initials stitched on a clean linen handkerchief in Blanton’s hip pocket. He also found a three-blade Camillus pocket knife with green jigged bone scales and a small leather notebook with a pencil held in a leather loop. Casey opened the notebook and flipped through the pages, then he slipped it into his coat pocket. “No car keys,” Casey muttered as he passed his other finds to Gautier, then he stood up to face Peters again. “Let’s talk to your men for a minute,” Casey said. Wordlessly,
Peters led him over to the other two men. They were identically dressed in pressed and pleated khaki uniforms with silver badges. Their waists and torsos were wrapped in shiny Sam Browne belts, and each belt supported a heavy revolver in a swivel holster. One was tall with fair skin and hair, the other short and stocky with swarthy, pitted skin and coal black hair. Black brows met over the bridge of his nose and his eyes were like jet marbles. He stood a bit to the front, indicating that he was probably the senior partner. “This is Captain Casey from New Orleans, boys,” Peters said.
“Tell the man what you found.”
“I’m Gasso,” the short, dark man said. “We was doin’ our reg’lar patrol through here, an’ it was still plenty dark. Brisbois,” he jerked a thumb at his partner, “was drivin’, and when the headlights hit the body I told him to stop. I wasn’t sure what it was, you unnerstan’, but there was somethin’ about it give me a cold chill. We got out with our flashlights and found the colored guy layin’ there with half his head gone. We radioed the substation, and after a while Captain Peters come out.”
“So you secured the crime scene, and nobody did any tramping around after you got here, right?”
“Right.” Gasso nodded vigorously. “We didn’t even touch the body except to find his identification.”
“Good,” Casey said. “I got our lab boys coming out right behind us. We can take it from here.”
Gasso looked up at Peters, who nodded. Gasso and Brisbois each gave Casey and Peters a brief salute, and then departed. Within seconds they were back in their big Chevrolet heading east.
“I’ll hang around, if you don’t mind, Captain,” Peters said. “The sheriff ’ll want a representative here since it’s in our territory.” He paused and tugged on his right earlobe for a moment. “Speaking of that, just why was one of your detectives this far out of his jurisdiction? The sheriff ’ll want to know how come he was here without notification.”
Casey frowned and looked down at the tops of his shoes for a moment, then he looked up. “He was working undercover.
Whatever he was after must’ve brought him over here, but it’s hard to say what. When we figure that out, we’ll be glad to share it with the sheriff.”
Peters’ boyish face looked grave, and he tucked his thumbs into his belt. “Y’all want to play it close to the vest, it’s fine by me, but sooner or later you’ll have to fill in the sheriff, or he’ll tell you to get the hell out of his parish. I don’t want to cause you any extra grief, but you can’t expect to operate here without letting him know what you’re doing.”
Casey stroked his chin with his thumb and forefinger as he stared at the tall deputy for a moment. “I’ll have to ask for your forbearance while we sort this out, Peters. I’ll come in to see the sheriff in a little while and talk it over with him, okay?”
Peters considered it for a moment, his eyes hooded and unreadable. “Okay. I’ll tell him what you said. But you got to understand something about Sheriff Chauchaut—he’s got a political reputation to protect, and he’s not going to let himself look foolish.” There was the barest trace of embarrassment in the rural policeman’s voice, as though he found his boss’s political ambitions a burden.
Casey nodded. “I understand.”
The two policemen turned back to the body, and saw Gautier walking along the edges of the highway, searching the ground. Gautier looked up and then walked over.
“There’s some foot tracks in the dirt on the shoulder comin’ from that direction, Cap’n.” He jerked a thumb to the east. “Toes are dug in hard. Looks to me like he might’a been running away from somebody when they caught up to him. He probably turned and got off three shots before they got him.”
“See anything else?”
“He always wore a hat everywhere he went. Had a nifty Dobbs, dark brown, but it ain’t nowhere around. We looked up and down the road, over in the grass yonder,” he pointed toward the levee, “and across the road for about a fifty yards. It might mean something, but then again it might mean nothin’.”
“Find any shotgun shells nearby?”
“Yep.” Gautier held up a red paper cylinder with a shiny brass base on the end of his pencil. “Western twelve gauge, double- ought buck. It’s good and clean—we oughta be able to get a picture of the striker and ejector marks in the microscope. Trouble is, repeating shotguns are prob’ly as common as dirt out here. We’ll have a hell of a time tracing the murder weapon through a single spent shell.”
Casey nodded. “Maybe—unless it’s been used before. I see Nick Delgado’s here. Go and tell him what you found, and give him the valise of stuff we took off Blanton. Stick around and hitch back with him. I’ll drive down river—maybe I’ll see something.” “Yes, sir.” Gautier’s lean brown face was hard and deep lines were etched alongside his nose and mouth. He walked toward the panel truck and waved at Delgado as the other detective got from behind the wheel. Casey walked back to his own cruiser, got behind the wheel, and stared for a long moment before starting the car and driving away from the crime scene.
# # #
Wesley Farrell sat staring out the window at Basin Street, idly rubbing his ear with a pencil, when the house phone on his desk rang. It startled him out of his daydream and he picked it up on the second ring. “Yeah,” he said in his smooth baritone.
“’Scuse me for botherin’ you, boss,” bar manager Harry Slade said into his ear, “but there’s a guy down here askin’ to see you.”
“He got a name?”
“He says he’s James Schofield.”
The name reverberated in Farrell’s ear, causing a rush of memory to the night five years before when the Coast Guard officer with that name was killed beside him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood upright and he cleared his throat. “Okay, send him up.” He put down the phone, trying to shake off an uneasy feeling.
In something less than a minute, he went to answer a knock at the door. A man stood there who could have been George Schofield’s twin, except he was far too young. Farrell figured him for no more than twenty-six or -seven. “Mr. Schofield?” I’m Wes Farrell. What can I do for you?” Farrell betrayed no recognition, looking steadily at the other man.
The younger Schofield took Farrell’s hand in a firm grip, shaking it several times before taking off his hat and walking into the office. Farrell gestured toward some chairs and Schofield went in, taking the chair directly across from Farrell’s desk.
Farrell returned to his chair behind the desk, opened a cigarette box, and offered one to the other man. Schofield took it with a nod of thanks. He lit the cigarette and blew smoke into the air between them. “Thanks. I hope you don’t mind my barging in like this.”
“What is it that I can help you with?” Farrell spoke in an expressionless voice, watching the other man intently.
“Does my name mean anything to you?” “Should it?”
“Answering a question with a question—that’s not good manners, Farrell.” Schofield’s casual demeanor was no deeper than the silver plate on a two-dollar watch. Farrell felt the barely restrained anger simmering in him.
“Why don’t you just get whatever it is off your chest so I can go back to work,” Farrell said without heat. “This place isn’t a stop on the historic tour of the French Quarter, and I’m not in the mood to do crossword puzzles with every stranger who comes in to pass the time of day.”
Schofield reached into his jacket and pulled out a leather folder. He flipped it open and a badge identifying him as a U. S. Treasury Agent glinted dully in the room’s muted daylight.
“So you’re a T-Man.” Farrell affected an attitude of boredom. “I don’t recall breaking any Federal laws lately.”
“Not lately. But during Prohibition, you fractured the Volstead Act six ways to Sunday. None of the resident agents could ever get anything on you, but your name was on the lips of every two-bit bootlegger and moonshiner between Pensacola and Galveston. If they’d had any luck, you’d be busting rocks in a Federal pen now.”
“That’s yesterday’s news, even if it was true.”
“My brother isn’t yesterday’s news. Lieutenant Commander George Samuel Schofield, United States Coast Guard. Deceased.” Schofield spoke in a flat, hard voice. “He commanded a flotilla of seventy-five footers based here, and he was assassinated on Canal Street five years ago. Nobody was ever arrested or brought to trial for it.”
“So why come to me? People get killed in New Orleans all the time without me being within a mile of them.”
“Because you were neck deep in liquor smuggling. If you didn’t have anything to do with my brother’s death, you still might know who did.”
“That’s taking a lot for granted,” Farrell said. “You have any idea how many people around here made their livings off illegal hooch between 1919 and 1934? At least a thousand would be a safe bet. Too many for me to know. Besides, who’d brag about shooting a Federal cop? You’d have to be dumb as a post to do that, and people that dumb don’t live long in the rackets.”
The logic of Farrell’s words brought the younger man up short. With some effort, he smoothed the frown out of his features and spoke in a more reasonable tone. “Play along with me, Farrell. I don’t want to cause you any trouble, but I want to know who killed my brother. This is personal. I don’t give two hoots and a damn how much liquor you slipped through here. I want to know who killed George.”
Understanding bloomed. “So this is private—Treasury has nothing to do with it?”
“I’m on an unpaid leave of absence,” Schofield said stiffly. “I was in my sophomore year at the Coast Guard Academy in New London when George got killed. Afterward I resigned. It took me over a year to get accepted for training as a Treasury Agent. When I got into the field, for the next two years I volunteered for every bum detail and cold case that came along so that when I asked to do this I’d have too much on the credit side of the ledger for them to say no. Since then, I’ve studied the case up, down, and sideways, and I’m as certain as death that somebody here knows why George was killed—and by who.”
Farrell shook his head. “Then you know more than I do, Agent Schofield. I’m sorry about your brother, but I can’t help you. Killing cops is way out of my line—there’s no future in it, and no profit.”
“Don’t pretend to be high-minded with me,” Schofield said sharply. “You’ve killed before—not once but several times. You’ve been lucky enough to do some of it when you were cleaning house for the local law—which makes me wonder about them, too. No real cop I know goes out with a killer for a sidekick.”
Farrell’s face retained its emotionless facade, but his pale gray eyes grew paler yet and little lights began to jump in them. “You’re about to run out of welcome, Agent Schofield. Since you’re here unofficially and without any warrants, I can tell you to go to hell. I can even heave you out a window if the mood strikes me—and that mood’s only about a hair away right now. So get lost.”
Schofield got up, dark red circles burning in his cheeks. He crushed his cigarette out and put his hat back on. “Farrell, I smell lies coming off you like stink from a garbage dump. If you know anything about my brother’s murder, I’ll find it out. And by God, I’ll come back with a set of handcuffs.” He turned on his heel and walked out, leaving the door open behind him.
Farrell sat there for a moment, staring at the open door. His cigarette had burned down to nothing in the ashtray, so he got another out of the box, lighting it with the nickle-silver lighter on his desk. As he looked at the flame, he saw his hand was shaking. He closed the lighter and put it down on the desk. He let smoke feather gently from his nostrils as he remembered the sound of the shotgun and the stink of cordite rising hot from the barrel of his gun as he fired futilely at the departing Pontiac. After five years, it was like remembering a bad dream—a dream he had no desire to relive. But with the man’s brother in town kicking over every spittoon and garbage pail, forgetting was a luxury he could no longer afford.
He’d done nothing to cause George Schofield’s murder, but he’d done nothing to punish the people who’d done it, either. He wasn’t a cop and he wasn’t God, but something in him had always felt a sense of guilt that he’d let a good man get killed and then done nothing to avenge him.
Who had lured Schofield to his death that night? Schofield had said he only suspected there was a turncoat, not that he knew or had a guess as to who that man was. The supposed stool pigeon was supposed to identify the man for him, but more likely it was the turncoat and the gang he worked for who had lured Schofield to his death. Farrell’s head was beginning to ache. He had a lot of cold ground to go over if he was going to get his questions answered.
# # #
In the back bedroom of a house on Castiglione Street, the scarfaced man named Mercer braced himself on his powerful forearms as he labored over a nude woman with short dark hair who lay face-down on the bed. She was groaning loudly as she neared a point of ecstasy that she could almost see behind her closed eyelids. The scar-faced man panted almost silently, his yellow eyes gleaming as he stared down at the woman’s naked back, driving deeper and deeper into her. He slipped a hand under her belly and massaged the ripe flesh up to her heavy breasts, causing her to gasp and shudder. They went on like that for several moments more until the woman’s groans turned to hoarse cries that sounded almost like she was in terrible pain. The cries deepened and became more distressed until she began to buck and writhe under him, screaming and convulsing with the orgasm that shot through her like a bolt of electricity. Mercer came as he plunged down into her like a pile driver, gripping her around the waist like a man holding on to a bucking horse. The two of them fell out of the bed, the woman still screaming until, exhausted, she collapsed on top of him.
The man laughed deep down in his chest as he rubbed his large hands roughly over her belly. She laughed too, but it was the laugh of someone who has finally reached the top of a tall mountain and is laughing as much from relief as from pleasure. After a time, she staggered to her feet and disappeared into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
The scar-faced man got up and sat on the edge of the mattress, fumbling with a crumpled package of cigarettes until he got one shaken out. He stuck it into the corner of his mouth, lighting it with a kitchen match he scratched on the scarred night stand. He’d taken in a lung full of smoke when the telephone began to ring. He looked at it sourly and let it ring several more times before he reached out a hand to pick it up. “Yeah?” he said.
“Mercer, you trigger-happy fool,” a man’s voice said. “You just had to go and kill a cop, didn’t you. What the hell are you using for brains?”
“The fuckin’ guy had made us, pal. There wasn’t nothin’ else to do but kill him by then. What’d you want me to do—offer him some bonbons and tea, maybe?”
“He should never have gotten that close to you, Goddamnit,” the voice shouted. “I’m paying you to think once in a while. How the hell’d he find you?”
“He suckered Hines into thinkin’ he was in the hot car racket.” Mercer spoke casually, letting smoke drift from his nostrils. “When he got to the hideout, one of the other niggers recognized him as a cop who’d busted him a while back. I had no choice.”
“So you had to do it on the road where a cop would be sure to find him, huh? Christ Almighty, you could’ve just wrung his neck and thrown the carcass in the river.”
“Calm down, pal.” An edge was growing in Mercer’s voice. “You wasn’t there, so I had to do the thinkin’ for us. The guy got hinky and broke away—wasn’t nothin’ else to do but run him down and kill him—which we did. Pickin’ up the body would’ve been real smart—we could’ve been stopped by a cop, or even seen by somebody else. We did it quick and clean—nothing to tie it to any of us. As soon as I got back, I had Hines and the boys break down the equipment and truck it across the parish to another place I found out about. Nobody saw us—it was a clean getaway.” “So far as you know,” the voice said pointedly. “Don’t think for a minute the New Orleans cops’ll let this lie. They’ll want somebody to swing for it even if he was a nigger.”
“But it ain’t in their jurisdiction, pal.” As Mercer spoke, the woman appeared in the doorway, her eyes sleepy and her mouth just slightly open. She came to the edge of the bed and stood there, looking at him expectantly, her breasts bobbing elastically from her pale chest. He looked at her with real satisfaction—she was a good animal. She was the only pleasure he allowed himself, and he wasn’t going to let anybody spoil it with a lot of yapping.
The voice was silent for a minute, then, “Jurisdiction doesn’t count in a cop killing. And there’s no statute of limitations on it. I shouldn’t have to remind you of that. If you got any more men as stupid as Hines, take ‘em out and kill them if you’re so Goddamned trigger happy.”
He hung up the telephone in Mercer’s ear, leaving the scarfaced man sitting there with a frown on his face. It’s always the same, he thought. You always end up workin’ with guys who want the money but don’t want to get their hands dirty.
He felt the woman put her hands and mouth on him as he set the telephone down on the hook and crushed out the cigarette in a tin ashtray on the night stand. He looked down at her, seeing her pale skin gleaming with sweat. Her touch felt like a live wire against his body, and he stretched out on the bed, no longer caring about the dead cop or the angry man on the phone. Mercer’s fingers tangled in the woman’s hair as he closed his eyes, feeling the blood surging through him like a river.
# # #
Across town, on the edge of a ghetto known as Gerttown, a skinny, narrow-skulled negro sat on the floor of a shotgun cottage, leaning against the bed while a prostitute called Violetta Dalton rubbed a hand softly across the man’s close-cropped hair. The skinny man was half-way to drunk, his right hand wrapped possessively around the neck of a quart of Kentucky Gentleman. Violetta looked down on him with affectionate, troubled eyes as he talked in a dull monotone. He had begun talking about how he’d let his boss, a white man named Mercer, down, but gradually the monologue had shifted to what he’d done to make up for it. Violetta took in a deep breath and held it because it was obvious by how upset he had become that something terrible had happened.
“Yeah, I had that Chevvy of mine revved up, honey. We took off after that slick-talkin’ brutha, I mean. Had him in sight ‘fore he’d gone more’n a hunnert yards. He heard us, turned around, and Mercer, he—Mercer he—” his voice cut off in a strangled sob and he turned the neck of the bottle against his lips, sucking the bourbon down his throat like he was trying to drown his very soul with it.
“Stop it, Zootie, baby.” Violetta spoke in a husky, alto voice. “Ain’t no need in goin’ over and over it. It’s done now, and ‘sides, you didn’t pull the trigger.” It was hard for Violetta to keep a tremor from disturbing the calm flow of her speech, but it had to be done if Zootie was to get what he’d done out of his system.
“Mercer’s my pal.” Zootie said this with great enthusiasm, but Violetta knew it was all movie-show emotion. Zootie’s voice was hollow and his face was contorted with something between grief and horror. “He said we took care of that brutha but good. ‘Magine, him a cop sneakin’ up on us like that? He deserved it. You shoulda seen the look on his face when we come up on him. You shoulda seen—” Again, he had to resort to the bottle to keep from splitting down the middle.
Violetta stroked his head and gently massaged the muscles between his neck and shoulders. Violetta had seen him like this before after the white man he idolized committed some act of savagery on another black man. Zootie wanted more than anything in the world to believe that Mercer needed him, but it was plain to see that Zootie was just somebody to do his dirty work and to keep the other negroes in the gang in line.
Violetta had figured out some time ago that Mercer used people like Zootie because he knew a negro, particularly a negro raised in the South, knew how to blend so perfectly with the background that white people could ignore him, a factor that made stealing cars duck soup.
Zootie was his enforcer because Mercer had recognized early on that Zootie’s need to be respected and feared was so strong that he would terrorize his own kind in order to get that respect, to feel important—to not be ignored. Violetta looked down on him with mingled feelings of tenderness and pity. There was sweetness, a kind of good in Zootie that could be reached with patience and love. Violetta had found it, and nurtured it whenever possible.
Zootie was good and drunk now, and he turned and looked up into the prostitute’s large, liquid brown eyes. Light brown hair, chemically straightened, was arranged in waves around a pretty oval face the color of milk chocolate. Violetta was the first person Zootie had ever known who had shown him anything like love. He always turned to her when he’d seen and done things too terrible to keep inside.
After a time, he reached up a hand and Violetta took it, pulling him up into the bed until they were lying side by side, kissing and exploring each other’s bodies. It was all Violetta had to give the miserable, guilt-ridden little man, and he took it gratefully, hungrily, even. He never stopped to consider the irony that a prostitute was the only person in the world who would show him love and affection. As their loving progressed, Violetta wondered what it would take to get Zootie away from Mercer, who had become father, mother, and brother to him. Violetta was tired of being a whore, and wondered if it were possible for them to have a normal life in which fear and degradation weren’t the first two items on each day’s menu. She wondered if she dared find out what it would take, and then if she dared risk it.
# # #
In an office in the U. S. Customs House, a man drummed his fingers on his desk as he read for the fifth time a communication from Treasury Enforcement headquarters in Washington. He looked anything but happy. He pulled a private telephone toward him and dialed an outside number. A man answered within three rings.
“This is Ewell. George Schofield’s brother is supposed to be in town. He hasn’t checked in here yet.”
“You make anything of that?” “Only that I don’t like it.” “What do you want to do?”
Ewell scratched his ear. “Find him. Keep your ear to the ground.
If he gets close to something, I want to know.”
“He probably won’t—not after all these years.”
“I haven’t lived this long by taking things for granted,” Ewell replied. “I’m not starting now.”
The other man was silent for a moment. “I hear you. I’ll be in touch.” He broke the connection.
Ewell put his receiver down very gently, then leaned back in his chair and stared across the room.